2- Inclusion, integration, social interaction

Tuesday 15 October 2019

2- Inclusion, integration, social interaction

There is also a good deal of semantic confusion when it comes to describing the ultimate objective of using football as a gateway to a new society. Words like “inclusion”, “integration”, or “assimilation” have a sensitive history and give way to multiple interpretations.



“Integration” into a society is in principle a process we all undergo in our culture of origin, in acquiring the codes and socio-cultural norms and values that make life in society possible. This primary process, undergone early in life and in large parts unconsciously, is generally referred to as “socialisation”.

A later, secondary and conscious process of “integration” into a new and very different host society is a highly complex, stressful, and long process that requires a considerable amount of energy and patience. Working with migrants in a football context usually (but not exclusively) takes place at the very beginning of this process, which is why some activists refer to a “pre-integration” period, a phase which allows newly arrived individuals to benefit from others who are already more advanced.

Some social scientists or NGO activists are not very comfortable with the word “integration”, for historical reasons. The term may indeed be associated to the concept of “assimilation”, which refers to a process where an immigrant fully embraces the norms and values of the host society, losing large parts of his/her culture of origin (some scientists actually prefer the term “acculturation”). While the term “assimilation” as such is perfectly neutral, the concept is today considered not only counter-productive, but also closely linked to colonialist or neo-colonialist ideologies and should therefore better be avoided.

There is, however, a certain consensus today in the understanding that successful “integration” is a two-way process engaging both the newcomers and the host society, implying rights and obligations on both sides, and necessarily having an effect on both sides.

While many refugees or “beneficiaries of international protection” will wish to return to their home country once the situation will have improved, they nevertheless are likely to live for several years in the host society, which makes “integration” efforts on both sides both desirable and inevitable. As Laurent Thieule, President of the Sport and Citizenship think tank, anticipates, “the cost of non-integration will by far exceed the investment of resources required for successful integration”.[1]

[1]        At the first transnational project meeting of the FIRE project, Brussels, 14 February 2019.


“Inclusion” and the derivated adjective “inclusive” take on their full meanings when considering that newly arrived migrants find themselves per definition in a state of social “exclusion” in their new host society. The dimensions of exclusion are manifold: spatial or territorial (with regard to accommodation and lack of mobility), linguistic and cultural (local language and social norms), but also relational (sense of belonging, feeling of acceptance) or psychological (lack of control over one’s life).[1] In short, “exclusion” refers to the inability to participate in activities available to the majority of society, whether in the economic, social, cultural or political sphere.[2]

“Inclusion” is therefore a perfectly appropriate term to describe an entire process that reduces all these forms of “exclusion” and enables individuals to take part in society. It starts with the simple action of making contact with an individual and inviting him/her to join a local community – if only a football community – and ideally leads to full participation and equality.

Obviously, “inclusion” and “integration” are partly overlapping. For instance, the Inspire project coordinated by the Fare network refers to a project title that uses both terms: “Integration through sport and inclusion for refugees in Europe”. Many non-scientific texts actually use them almost interchangeably. Others, like the ASPIRE project’s review of “key terms” insist on the distinction made by some socials scientists, according to whom “integration” is “merely allowing people into a community “, while “inclusion” is the respectful two-way process, leading to real participation and belonging. [3] As often in the sciences, definitions are open to debate.

“Inclusion”, as a relatively recent word, lacks the historical bias that may be attributed to “integration” and might therefore be less sensitive. One of the most prominent initiatives, the “Sport Inclusion Network” (SPIN), run by the Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Cooperation (VIDC), uses the term explicitly in its name.

Its only drawback is that it may be perceived by some interlocutors as a rather “academic” or “intellectual” term, the concrete meaning of which is not immediately clear to everyone. In which case the expressions “participation” or “social interaction” might be an interesting alternative.

[1]  Richard Bailey, “Evaluating the relationship between physical education, sport and social inclusion”, Educational Review, Vol. 57, Issue 1 (2005), pp. 71-90.
[2] Ruth Levitas et al., The multi-dimensional analysis of social exclusion. Bristol Institute for Public Affairs, 2007.
[3] Richard Bailey et al. (ICSSPE), Aspire Literature Review – Key Terms, Berlin: 2017.


Participation and social interaction

As Hedeli Sassi from the Royal Belgian FA puts it, “inclusion is something you do, it’s about participation and social interaction, nothing less, nothing more.”

Indeed, if the ultimate goal of reaching out to migrant populations through football is being inclusive in order to allow participation in a social activity of the host society, the terms “participation” or “social interaction” are perfectly appropriate (and perhaps less intimidating than others).

Welcome and tolerance

When dealing with newly arrived migrants, two words that are used over and over again are “welcome” and “tolerance”. Both have strong positive connotations, but both obviously fall short of the ultimate objective of engaging with a refugee population. “Welcome” can only be a very first step on the road to “inclusion” or “integration”; and while “tolerance” is mainly used in a sense of open-mindedness in favour of ethnic and cultural diversity, it may also convey a hidden meaning of “temporary acceptance in social separation”. An attitude of simple “tolerance” may thus actually be counter-productive to actively engaging with cultural diversity.

Overall, there is nothing wrong and little risk with using the terms “inclusion” and “integration” or “participation” and “social interaction”. It is, however, highly recommended to take into account local or national sensitivities and understandings of these words. More importantly, it is essential to be able to argue about the word of one’s choice and if necessary explain to an interlocutor what is meant by it.